A Solemn Beginning More Protestant Churches Observing Ash Wednesday Ritual

Article excerpt

"Remember you are dust and to dust you will return."

The ancient phrase symbolizing mortality, mourning and penance will be chanted in a number of area churches Wednesday as Catholic and Protestant pastors make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful. The occasion is the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent.

The imposition of ashes has been a universal practice in the Catholic church as early as the 4th century when Pope Gregory I the Great established Ash Wednesday as the first day of the period of preparation for Easter.

An increasing number of Protestant churches are observing Ash Wednesday with special services, programs and potluck dinners. Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ and others plan special services on Wednesdays throughout the 40 days of Lent. Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which is April 7 this year.

Several Protestant churches are offering their members the opportunity to receive ashes on their foreheads, and some pastors attribute the practice to a closing of the gap between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Penitents may receive ashes four times throughout the day Wednesday in most Catholic churches, including St. Peter on First Capitol Drive in St. Charles.

Deacon Tom Willbrand at St. Peter says the distribution of ashes is a powerful ritual with which to begin the somber period of Lent.

"Any time you use symbols or ceremony where people come to the altar, it has a much more profound effect than a pronouncement," Willbrand said. "By having the priest touch their foreheads with the sign of the cross in ashes, people are made more aware of the solemnity of Lent."

St. John's Lutheran Church in Warrenton and Grace United Church of Christ in St. Peters will offer the imposition of ashes to their members on Wednesday.

The Rev. Dianna Niemann-Harris, pastor of Grace UCC, explained that the Ash Wednesday observance was a tradition handed down to UCC by its parent denominations: Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian.

"We all came from the Catholic branch," Niemann-Harris said. "The fact that some Protestant denominations are reclaiming Catholic rituals such as the distribution of ashes is a sure sign that the years of trying to be different may be coming to an end."

Young Grace UCC confirmands take part in a ceremony in which they burn emerald leaves used in place of palms on Palm Sunday. …